Of life, baseball and finish lines

In this golden era for Phillies fans, I’ve been blessed with golden luck.

During the Phils’ great run, I’ve been at all four home games where they clinched division titles.

Last weekend, as fireworks exploded, my mind compared this calmly satisfied celebration with the one in 2007, this great team’s first title year.

Back then, on the brilliant Sunday when the Fightins’ completed their fabled stretch drive, the fans emitted a thunderous explosion of disbelieving joy.

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As the current version of the Phils’ high-fived around the pitcher’s mound, my mind flitted to another comparison. Both times, a nice moment in the make-believe world of sports became shadowed by sadness in all-too-real life.

In 2007, as I left Citizens Bank Park amid the merry, boisterous crowd, my cell rang. It was my son, then a sophomore at Temple. I assumed he was calling to exult.

Instead, he told me that one of his best friends had just been killed in a car accident. His close-knit group suddenly had to deal with shocking loss, and the nasty news that, no, they were not immortal. The grief was raw and relentless.

This year, as my wife and I planned our night at the game, the phone rang. Our good friend, Dick Gross, had died that morning. I’d visited him, thank God, the night before at his home, and seen that his gallant fight with cancer was almost over.

Death is always wrenching. Disease’s toll upon this good man was hard to behold. But the sadness was redeemed by the knowledge that Dick would pass the threshold in the way he chose, surrounded by family who cared for him with exquisite tenderness. Not with a sickening thud of metal against tree.

Also by the knowledge that my friend lived a life rich in meaning and joy. After a career in education, Dick became my model for how to live with gray hairs.

He really never stopped working; he taught mentoring, led civic dialogues. He also seized nonstop enjoyment out of ‘retirement’: travel, opera, golf. Even after his scary diagnosis, he remained sunny and determined, managing a trip to Tuscany this year.

Two ballgames, two phone calls you never want to get.

I pray no one you love is ever wrenched from life the way my son’s friend was.

I pray that we all, when our time comes, meet it with the joyful grace of Dick Gross.

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